6. 16. 2022

Neither Liberalism nor Fascism, but Trans Liberation and Socialism

Misha Falk

A decade ago, Joe Biden, then vice president of the United States, described discrimination against transgender people as “
the civil rights issue of our time.” Since then, and especially in the last year, transgender people have come increasingly under attack through the courts. Most of the 240 anti-LGBTQ bills filed so far in 2022 target trans people – putting pressure on families to deny their trans children necessary healthcare, for example. Reports of violent assaults on trans people are published in the pages of major news outlets seemingly every other day; articles promote conspiracy theories about us and even incite violence against us. Despite this growing danger, the liberal political establishment in the U.S. and Canada has taken no real action to counter the growing threat to trans people’s existence. Established and well-funded LGBTQ organizations, preoccupied with winning corporate sponsorships and lobbying governments, are proving to be of little help. Focused on defending marriage equality and equal access to military service, or championing LGBTQ celebrities and businesses, these politically liberal organizations promote the assimilation of LGBTQ people into white middle-class society. Too often they channel resources and activists away from grassroots organizing. 

Facing these challenges, trans radicals need to develop our own analysis of how transphobic ideology functions, and advance our own vision of liberation.

Sexual hegemony

Trans activists and the broader left seem to agree that the present reaction against trans people is bound up with a larger conservative project of imposing regressive gender and sexual norms. Right-wing transphobia must be understood in connection with attacks on vaccination, the erosion of socialized healthcare in Canada, the impending repeal of Roe v. Wade in the United States, and the onslaught against abortion access more broadly. 

The late queer historian Christopher Chitty’s concept of sexual hegemony can help us build an analysis of these connections. In his book Sexual Hegemony, published in 2020 and drawing on the work of Italian communist Antonio Gramsci, Chitty describes the phenomenon named in the book’s title as “a relationship…[that] exists wherever sexual norms benefitting a dominant social group shape the sexual conduct and self-understanding of other groups.” In capitalist societies today, binaristic, biologically essentialist notions about the relationship between “sex” and ”gender” – for example, the idea that one’s genitals determine one’s “sex,” which in turn determines “gender” – are widely presented as common sense even though contemporary science doesn’t bear them out. This “common sense” understanding assigns patriarchal social roles on the basis of a person’s perceived sex characteristics, and forces nonconsensual medical procedures on intersex babies whose bodies don’t conform to the expectations established by the gender binary. 

Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality (and lots of scholarship that draws heavily on it) points to 19th-century developments in medical practice and the scholarly discipline of sexology as having “invented” – because creating new language and categories for – these modern concepts of gender and sexuality. This view is not necessarily incorrect, but it overstates the impact of theoretical discourses, and understates the role that class domination and European settler colonialism played in imposing bourgeois sexual hegemony on much of the world. It obstructs a dialectical understanding of how identities are shaped by class struggle, and so emerge from the social conflicts characteristic of particular historical periods.

For Chitty, experiences commonly associated with LGBTQ people, such as the act of coming out of the closet, are actually quite specific to a contemporary white middle-class nuclear family context that doesn’t apply to all LGBTQ people, but is often rhetorically generalized as if it did. The effect is an erasure of working-class minoritarian sexual cultures that fit poorly into liberal narratives. In 17th-century London and Paris, for instance, an underground of “Molly-houses” emerged, places where, Chitty says, “men [would] dress as women and assume women’s names.” In these houses, transgender embodiment, queer social life, and sex work practices overlapped. Queer existence in that setting was not defined by an act of “coming out,” as being a Molly was not an individual identity that could be separated from the social context of the Molly-house. In the present day, queer kids who are kicked out of home or trapped living with hostile families often never have a closet to begin with. Divergence from dominant gender and sexual norms is sometimes so stigmatized in families, and by religious and state institutions, that many queer people’s identities are shaped by ostricization before they even have language or a community context through which to make sense of that experience.

The drawbacks of liberal narratives have also been on display as queer activists have demanded a greater acknowledgement of the 1969 Stonewall riots’ role in the gay liberation movement. Where radicals have sought to emphasize the anti-cop, anti-capitalist character of the organizing that Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, and others carried out through their organization STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries), liberals have often reframed that history in a way that emphasizes its discontinuity with our own moment: they rioted so we could celebrate Pride, and thus today we needn’t riot anymore. Rather than understanding both the successes and the limitations of STAR’s organizing as part of an ongoing history of queer proletarian survival and revolt, one from which today’s activists can draw lessons, the liberal lionizing of yesterday’s queer radicalism celebrates our present time as uniquely accepting of LGBTQ people, and therefore casts radical activism in the present as inappropriate – even sometimes as “ungrateful” to those who struggled before us. This view takes homophobia to be a natural underlying human tendency that can be repressed only through symbolic acceptance of queer lives, consolidated by means of the legal system. Such a perspective drastically narrows what trans liberation can mean.

Transphobia isn’t just a moral panic

In the U.S., the far right has taken a two-pronged approach to imposing a regressive sexual and gender order – a new sexual hegemony – on the population. Years of political maneuvering have given far-right forces enough control over the state’s legislative and judicial organs, and enough confidence, that today they’re dramatically changing the American legal landscape. The Supreme Court’s leaked plan to overturn Roe v. Wade comes not long after Texas Governor Greg Abbott effectively reclassified healthcare for trans adolescents as “child abuse” under state law. The blatantly undemocratic nature of these legal machinations (nearly seven in ten Americans say they do not want to see Roe v. Wade overturned) is shielded from public view by the storm of opinion columns espousing conspiracy theories about trans people corrupting the youth, blatantly appealing to white suburban family anxieties. The resulting endless discourse diverts people’s attention and energy from the anti-trans legal repression underway. It also fans the flames of fascist movements, active online and in the streets.

It’s easy to read these sensationalizing tactics through the sociological lens of moral panic, a term used to describe the process by which a public demands the elimination or shunning of some group of people due to a false or exaggerated perception that this group poses a threat to the majority’s values. Mass online outrage over fake stories portraying trans people and sexual health education as “grooming” children is a clear example. The concept of a moral panic, however, typically relies on understanding transphobia as a natural, inevitable underlying human drive simply waiting to be unleashed. It fails to account for how both trans identity and transphobic reaction emerge through historical processes – which suggests that no “phobia,” and no gender or sexual identity, is inherently more natural than any other. 

A class-struggle framework like Chitty’s allows us to better understand the political work that attacks on trans people do. These attacks are not simply about eliminating an unwanted other, but also about inscribing a particular set of gendered relations as natural. This is why institutional transphobia can’t be reduced to an expression of sadism (“the cruelty is the point”) or simply a way for Republicans to get more votes. Rather, it is a fascistic project of imposing a Christian nationalist patriarchal family order on society as a whole. It is a project of a section of the ruling class vying to extend the dominance of its sexual hegemony in our decaying capitalist society, asserting a desperate fantasy that all the suffering and uncertainty brought about by capitalist crisis, social division, and environmental collapse will go away if we simply “return” to more traditional categories of meaning. 

We can therefore understand our present situation as one of competing sexual hegemonies: a competition between the liberal “tolerance” view that moral panics can be repressed if selected LGBTQ ways of being are protected through formal legal equality and hate crime laws, and a reactionary sexual hegemony that seeks the criminalization or outright elimination of all modes of being that conflict with the norms of the white Christian cisheterosexual nuclear family.

Personal narrative and community action    

It’s on the terrain established by those competing hegemonies that trans people make our lives, invisibly or hyper-visibly. Liberal and reactionary media representation, rarely led by trans people ourselves, turns a few of us into public figures, with limited control over how our images are used. Transition becomes a spectacle for a non-trans audience, with little attention paid to the material needs of working-class trans people: access to housing, or to hormones and surgeries. Trans voices are elected by cis gatekeepers to represent the “trans community,” as long as those voices foreground narratives palatable to white middle-class audiences: about the struggle of transition lying solely in the act of coming out, and personal reckoning with embodying gender in changed ways. 

It’s not that these aspects of trans life are unimportant. But the emphasis on them serves to bolster liberal sexual hegemony more than it helps working-class trans people who need access to material support. And as the trans marxist scholar Jules Gleeson has eloquently pointed out, it’s absurd to refer to a singular “trans community,” as if any identity category could be spoken of as a singular group, without endless subgrouping and variation. Instead of this impossible homogeneity, Gleeson suggests, there exist “trans circles” that form around a specific social milieu or activity – a reading group or a support network, for example. In this view, transition is something that happens within a community context, through the sharing of resources, knowledge, and friendship; it requires forms of intentional collective action. This theory of identity formation is less concerned with the autobiographical question of why an individual is transgender. Instead it focuses on the social processes that shape trans lives. Trans people, as Gleeson puts it, “most often draw strength from interacting with other souls like-minded enough (often, but not exclusively, trans themselves) who are able to offer them the specific support, mentorship, and reciprocal recognition that identity formation requires.”

Far more than the narratives of individual struggle that liberal representation politics offer, Gleeson’s concept of trans circles offers a useful lens for understanding how trans people actually exist. Trans circles are not neatly defined and can include non-trans people who nevertheless find themselves drawn to trans networks by circumstances or curiosity. People in these groups help each other secure housing and jobs, or simply assist in relieving the extreme isolation many trans people face. The seeds of a sexual counterhegemony, however marginal it may now be, are planted in the process.

Trans liberation now!

It’s striking how many trans people are drawn to radical left-wing politics, a phenomenon that has been visible in every organizing space in which I’ve participated. Striking, though not too surprising, given liberal lawmakers’ inability or unwillingness to protect us, and the existential threat trans people face from the far right. The moment is ripe for trans activists to come together to build new political organizations and fight back. Some groups like Tear It Up and Health Liberation Now! are already out there building grassroots trans power. Unfortunately, many other existing LGBTQ organizations, with funding and reach that could support mass mobilization, lack a bold vision of trans liberation organizing that moves beyond single-issue campaigns and denunciations of individual right-wing attacks.

These organizations must be pressured into adopting more radical demands. Tactics like Black Lives Matter Toronto’s disruption of that city’s Pride parade in 2016, for example, which advanced a demand that Pride Toronto end police participation in the event, can force LGBTQ organizations to declare which side they’re on. Polarizing in that way can win radical queer and trans movements new supporters, and clarify who’s really with us. Reacting to the far right’s latest outrage can sometimes take our focus away from building solidarity with certain groups and movements on our side and putting pressure on others. To be politically effective, we need to go on the offensive, refusing to expend all our energy on debunking hateful conspiracy theories or justifying why we should be allowed to exist. Instead, we need to collectively articulate what our liberation would mean for us and for the world. 

Trans liberation cannot be won through single-issue struggles pursued in isolation from each other. While advocating for specific anti-discrimination protections or fighting to ban conversion therapy are worthwhile projects, that advocacy needs to be connected to broader movement-building work – so the needs of the most marginalized within our communities are prioritized, and so our wins have some protection against right-wing pushback. The far right is currently waging an attack on body autonomy, both by obstructing adolescent and even adult trans people from accessing hormones and by eroding abortion access. We can’t pretend these issues are separate. We need to show up for each other. In the face of the far right’s project of imposing a white cisheteropatriarchal sexual hegemony, our urgent task is to advance an alternative vision – a vision of what less oppressive gender and sexual relations, including full body autonomy for both trans and non-trans people, can look like. We need a mass movement that refuses the essentializing notions of sexuality and gender imposed by both liberal and openly reactionary sexual hegemonies. We need a socialist movement for trans liberation as coalitional as it is bold.

Misha Falk is a writer and academic who organizes with Solidarity Winnipeg. You can find her on Twitter @baritonefemme.